1,000 innocent victims of Big Brother Britain: Families were spied on wrongly because of blunders by officials
Almost 1,000 entirely innocent people were wrongly spied upon using anti-terror powers last year following blunders by officials, it emerged last night.
In two shocking cases, two members of the public were arrested and accused of being serious criminals.
Details of phone calls and texts by genuine crime suspects had wrongly been attributed to the pair in a terrible mix-up between police and an internet company.
Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, said the mistakes had ‘significant consequence’ for the victims.
The internet provider involved was slow to report the errors and initially gave unsatisfactory explanations as to how they occurred or what was being done to stop it happening again, Sir Paul said.
He also revealed details of a council going beyond its legal powers to use snooping laws to spy on a family suspected of cheating school catchment area rules.
The council obtained details of phone calls and texts to seek to establish if the family lived where it said, the first known case of a town hall spying on a person’s phone records over school catchment areas.
The unnamed council was not acting within the rules, which say officials must be seeking evidence for use in a criminal prosecution. Instead, the council wanted only to withdraw a school place offered to a child in the family.
The hundreds of errors made by police, town halls and the security services will raise fresh doubts about the Government’s plan for a new ‘snoopers’ charter’.
Currently, public bodies have access to details of when and where phone calls, texts and emails were sent and, in some cases, to whom. But under proposals before Parliament, this will be extended to a person’s every internet click and the details of phone calls made on Skype.
The details will be supplied by internet firms – which were responsible for around a fifth of the mistakes made last year. Most commonly, the wrong digit was attached to a phone number or internet address by police, spies or the internet firm. This leads to data on the wrong person being investigated. It is destroyed once the mistake has been identified.
Last year, there were 895 cases where communications data – details of texts, emails and phone calls – was obtained in error.
There were also 42 errors by the security services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – relating to undercover operations, and 42 blunders by police and other law enforcement bodies asking for warrants to intercept the details of phone calls or other data.
David Cameron said he was concerned by the errors made by organisations using the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
It was passed by Labour ostensibly to fight terrorism, but was then extended to cover a string of other public bodies, including town halls. Councils have been accused of using the powers to spy on those accused of putting their bins out on the wrong day or allowing their dog to foul the pavement.
The number of applications to obtain communications data was 494,078, which was down by 11 per cent but is still 1,350 every day.
Of these, 2,130 were made by town halls. This was up from 1,809 in 2010, despite repeated promises from ministers to curtail the use of surveillance by the so-called ‘Town Hall Stasi’.
The Home Office said: ‘Surveillance powers are a vital tool for police and security services, enabling them to catch criminals, prevent terrorist attacks and protect children. But they must be used proportionately – that is why we have blocked local authorities for accessing data for trivial purposes.’
Campaign group Liberty said the scale of surveillance revealed was ‘alarming’ and called on the Government to ‘think again about turning us into a nation of suspects rather than citizens’.